FRIDAY, Oct. 14, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- A protein in breast milk helps protect premature babies from hospital-acquired infections, according to a new study.

"The majority of diseases affecting newborn preemies are hospital-acquired infections such as meningitis, pneumonia and urinary tract infections," said study lead author Dr. Michael Sherman. He is a retired professor of child health at the University of Missouri School of Medicine in Columbia, Mo.

"Not only did we find that lactoferrin, a protein found in breast milk, could reduce hospital infections among preemies, but we also measured the safety of feeding the protein to newborns," he said in a university news release.

The study included 60 premature infants who were given lactoferrin through a feeding tube twice a day for 28 days, and 60 premature infants who received a placebo. Babies in the lactoferrin group had 50 percent fewer hospital-acquired infections, the study found.

Lactoferrin did not cause any harmful side effects, according to the study published recently in The Journal of Pediatrics.

"While a large-scale clinical trial is needed before lactoferrin becomes a standard treatment protocol in NICUs [neonatal intensive care units], our results show the safety of lactoferrin and provide an initial report of efficiency related to reducing hospital-acquired infections," Sherman said.

Lactoferrin can cost $25 to $500 per dose. The estimated costs for treatment of hospital-acquired infections in the United States is $9.8 billion a year, according to the news release.

More information

The March of Dimes has more about premature babies.